After the chemical weapons disaster in August, Syria is once again at the forefront of international news, leading to a new wave of discussions. Obama’s decision towards Syria, the recent UN resolution, Russia’s diplomacy and a new-old crisis in one of the most turbulent regions of the world – all of which provokes heated debate and makes everyone want to comment on this sexy topic. This unfortunately includes those who are incompetent with Syrian, and Middle-eastern, affairs.

Luckily this is not the case here. Today we are talking with an expert on the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) – Barah Mikail – senior researcher at the European think-tank FRIDE. Of Syrian origin himself, Mr. Mikail is the author of many publications and books on his country and region, a person with extensive research and lecturing experience as well as work in the French Ministry for Defence. He kindly agreed to provide us with an insight into EU-Syrian relations.

Obviously, Syria can serve as a litmus paper for the EU in many regards: its common foreign and security policy (CFSP), migration, refugees, foreign aid and crisis management in general. So let us dig deeper and ask the expert.

Mr. Mikail, how do you see the EU´s role in resolving Syria´s conflict and what is the current state of involvement of the Union?

The EU has obviously failed to find a good way to approach the Syrian conflict. We have to look here at the two levels which exist. There is the national one, where we have particular state-members developing their own strategies – which do not necessarily involve the EU taken as a whole. Then we have the European global level, where the EU has rather followed what has been said by other actors, starting with France and the United States. Although aimed from the beginning at the support of Syria´s population in its willingness for change, the EU simply looked at who had been determined as a legitimate opponent and representative of the Syrian people by other actors.

All in all, what happened is that the EU preferred to talk with the opponents outside the country (those who left Syria already decades ago) rather than establish a dialogue with the opposition inside the country – Syrians living and peacefully fighting IN Syria. These are the people whose position should have been taken into account. This resulted in the EU talking only to those, who cut its relations and any possibility to have an impact on the Syrian regime.  Thus, we see an EU which does not seem to be able to provoke any significant shifts in the Syrian context.

The Syrian situation has allowed us to see that the US, France and the UK were not as strong as we thought at first they would be. British Parliaments resolution and Obama’s ambiguous actions do not strengthen the image of the West in general. As a result the one who has an upper hand on everything is the Syrian regime.

And how would you assess in this regard the probability of a united position of the EU, taking into account France’s willingness to attack and the UK’s Parliament decision?

The UK is keen on operating strikes on Syria, it is the Parliament which is against. Look at the Government and Cameron: Cameron is willing to but at the same time does not want to engage its country into a failure – the way it was with Iraq. So everyone ends up just criticizing Syria’s regime. And here the UK and France are sharing the same stands.

What the EU, however, is not doing – is focusing enough on the fact that the crimes are not only on the regime’s side. The jihadists are also responsible for them. Hence, though it is Bashar al-Assad´s fault for not having been able to deal with this situation from the very beginning – the deaths of countless Syrians should be laid upon both their heads.

But how do you see the probability to shape a common ground for the EU to step in?

I do not see any chance now. Germany is against France’s position. A lot of EU members do not agree with intervening. The economic crisis is a priority for the majority, especially for the Mediterranean states – those who could eventually engage more. But this is not happening. Therefore I do not see how the UK and France would make the EU adapt their point of view if they do not change their own stands.

Also worth mentioning here is the Union of the Mediterranean, launched in 2008, which did not bring many results, however. Mainly because of the EU’s internal disagreements and lack of vision of its MENA strategy. Hence, the EU is injecting money and producing statements, but when it comes to actions – we do not see anything. Although, I do think that the EU could become a relevant player, since it does not have this aggressive and negative image to the extent like the US have vis-à-vis a big segment of the Arab public opinion. Moreover, the EU should take profit from its Gulf-EU dialogue, its dialogue with the US, Russia, Iran. It needs to take all of this into consideration, try to create a system and become a part of this global dialogue.

Recently the EU has announced that it would be happy to provide technical and financial assistance of the elimination of chemical weapons if the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons (OPCW) so requests. What do you think are the chances of EU being asked to do so and what would Syria’s reaction be?

Since the chemical weapons issues are being led by a UN body, it is effectively monitored and regulated. Syria stated it would respect its commitment, what it actually does so far. As for the EU’s contribution and assistance, I do not think this will provoke any problems on the Syrian side. The problems would arise when it comes to EU’s political involvement. As I said, Syria believes that the important ones here are the US and Russia, not the EU. The regime does not consider the EU as a relevant player, since it has taken one of the fighting sides. Hence, Syria might accept the EU to be an observer and an assistance granter but not as an actor.

And in this regard, do you consider it reasonable for the EU to provide assistance taking into consideration its internal financial problems?

Definitely. Despite the crisis, the EU spends its money on projects, including those in the MENA region, which by the way have sometimes not been useful. But when it comes to security and guaranteeing a better prospective for the future of the region it is totally relevant to fund this. It is not a waste of money. Moreover, it would be much more frustrating in a contrary scenario where they EU had not proposed any contribution.

Turning now to the refugee problem. We know millions fled the country, mostly to neighbouring countries, but without doubt the EU is affected as well. Would that be a potential challenge for EU’s migration policy?

The EU’s policy in this regard is very restrictive. Again, we have two levels here: the EU and the national ones. For example, the Netherlands and France have a very restrictive policy when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees. To add more, there is an awkward but conscious policy which has been promoted by Germany. It makes distinctions between Syrian refugees on a religious basis, allowing Syrian Christians to access the country easier. Of course this is not justifiable.

As for the EU levels – we did not abandon the Barcelona process mentality (1995), which proved unsuccessful. When it comes to controlling its own territory and the frontiers of the MENA region –the EU is struggling to adapt to the current situation. We see a totally absurd strategy of the EU. It has so many problems when going beyond its internal issues that it is merely focusing on technical issues, which are not allowing political solutions to evolve in a better way – neither in the MENA region, nor on EU soil. Of course, it is important to have technical cooperation, reinforce borders, financially assist foreign governments and monitor migration. But the EU should also accompany this with political measures giving nationals of third countries the means to believe in the prospects in their OWN countries. The EU should create frameworks for foreigners to want to stay in their countries and not to be tempted to go outside. Instead the EU sets more border checks and restrictions.

What do you think of the arms embargo?

The embargo should be kept, because you cannot stop a war while provoking or creating a war of attrition. But again, this embargo should be accompanied by a better coordination for the opposition forces.

Both France and the UK considered that Bashar al-Assad’s time was running out. Just like Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi previously. They knew the next target would be Syria and that it would be easy to solve. But what they did not anticipate well was the total failure of the opposition, meaning their bad strategy, disagreement between each other, own quests for leadership. And this situation is still ongoing now. Thus, the EU, as well as France and the UK, should have dealt with this in another way.

My last question: what would be the best scenario of EU-Syrian relations? Do you have recommendations for the EU? What are the prospects?

What can the EU do other than develop diplomatic and political channels and believe in politics as the only good solution for Syria’s perspectives? Miss Ashton is saying the same by the way. However, believing in soft power is great but you have to set some political frameworks for influence as well. I doubt that the EU could be a major player here, rather a mild mediator which finds a common ground for both the regime and the opposition.

The EU has to define conditions for a political dialogue and make it clear that the future of Syria should be a future where the opponents of Assad have the right to participate in elections and to be part of a future government of national unity.

The path the EU chose (following France and US) was not to its advantage. The priority for the EU should be to end the bloodshed. And the best way to do so is to deal with the strong power here, namely Assad. Opening a channel with the current regime is important and should be an opportunity for the EU to say: “OK, we can agree on something; we consider the current regime, but there are conditions for that”. That would be the best way to deal with this.


Related information:

FRIDE – Europe in the Reshaped Middle East

The EU and Syria

Factsheet – The Syrian Crisis

Fride – Assad’s Fall